Everglades restoration in Collier County
Efforts moving forward in Picayune Strand
2121 52nd Ave SE, Naples, FL
COLLIER COUNTY — They wanted to build the world’s largest subdivision.
Bulldozers carved up 55,000 acres south of Interstate 75 in rural Collier County with roads and canals, slicing through wildlife habitat and cutting off water flows.
The mother of Florida land scams sold off Southern Golden Gate Estates, now known as Picayune Strand State Forest, to thousands of lot owners around the world before the developer went bankrupt.
This morning, 40 years later, shovels are breaking ground on an Everglades restoration project that will begin to wipe the ill-fated subdivision off the map and start undoing decades of environmental damage.
“I think this is a leap (forward), not just a step, a leap,” Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said.
Besides its remarkable history, the project breaking ground today is significant because of what it represents to the larger Everglades restoration plan.
Picayune Strand, part of a landmark federal-state agreement in 2000 for restoring the Everglades, is the first of those projects to get underway with federal dollars behind it.
“This is a monumental moment for Everglades restoration,” said Paul Souza, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor in South Florida.
If all goes as planned, the project will be a water management fix unlike anything undertaken in Collier County before.
Three pump stations — each about the size of a chain drug store and four stories tall — will harness water from three canals that flow into Picayune Strand from north of Interstate 75.
Miles of levees will hold the water south of the pump stations until it is deep enough to overflow a second shorter levee.
More than 260 miles of roads will be torn out and 40 miles of canals will be plugged to let the water spread more naturally south of the levees across the land on its way to the Ten Thousand Islands.
The restoration will provide more places for wading birds to forage for fish, reduce the damaging wildfires and improve habitat for the endangered Florida panther by changing what grows in the forest, biologists said.
In downstream estuaries, the restoration will return a more natural balance of freshwater and saltwater, benefitting everything from oysters to manatees.
In 2003, the state of Florida moved ahead on its own with a $15 million first phase to begin filling the Prairie Canal on the project’s eastern edge.
Today’s ceremony marks the start of work on one of the pump stations, the smallest one, along the Merritt Canal.
“Going from the meeting room to out onto the ground, doing the things we were just dreaming about 10 years or so ago, it’s really very, very exciting,” said Stu Applebaum, the Everglades section chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The $53 million job includes construction of four miles of levees, tearing up 95 miles of roads and plugging 14 miles of canals.
The work will take more than two years and then the pumps will undergo a year-long test period to work out any kinks, engineers said.
A contract could be signed later this fall to build a pump station on the Faka Union canal, and a third pump station is planned for the Miller canal.
In all, the restoration is estimated to cost $435 million, including $200 million already spent on a massive land buyout. The project is expected to be completed by 2017.
Talk of repairing Golden Gate Estates started almost as soon as the damage was done.
In 1985, the state of Florida set its sights on acquiring Southern Golden Gate Estates so it could be turned back to nature.
The endeavor soon ran into trouble. Almost 4,000 landowners filed lawsuits in 1988 and in 1992, charging that the state wasn’t offering fair prices for their land and was violating their rights to use it.
A 1997 settlement required new appraisals and set the stage for a massive wave of successful eminent domain cases in Collier Circuit Court.
Public hearings on the restoration plans drew angry crowds that were opposed to the buyout and suspicious of the government’s intentions.
Some 20 years after it started, the unprecedented buyout had acquired 19,000 parcels for almost $200 million.
“It’s almost a little creepy when you go out here and see the roads out here and the street signs and the stop signs and realize that this could have been almost 60,000 people living out here,” Applebaum said.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/